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KAL watched the bird spiral upwards, riding the desert thermals higher and higher until it was a black speck against the impossibly blue sky. The bird's flight lifted his spirit until it seemed his soul soared with it, released from the imprisonment of his body. Only here, alone in an endless sea of sand, did he experience the lightness of spirit that was close to happiness.
As close as he would ever come...
Suddenly, the black speck dropped like a stone, down and down and down, wings tucked back to add destructive power to the speeding descent. It disappeared from sight behind a sand dune, and Kal whistled then held out his arm for the bird's return.
It had missed its kill and he wasn't sorry—he had food enough for himself and the bird. But the falcon's failure reminded him how long it had been since he'd spent time with his birds—flying them and training them. His men exercised them regularly, but they didn't have the same touch and the birds knew it.
But what was more important? Training falcons the way his ancestors had for thousands of years, or bringing modern medicine to his country—providing the best medical services for his people?
He slipped the bird's hood over its head and set it on a stand, his hand lingering on the shiny dark feathers, feeling a tight bond with this living creature that could fly so freely, yet returned willingly to its captivity. Just as he would return to the hospital, for to do anything else would be unthinkable.
But not until tomorrow...
He walked back across a sand hill to where he'd left his big four-wheel-drive, and brought out a bundle of sticks. He'd build a fire and camp out beneath the stars—forget the world he was escaping, if only for a night. But though the stars shone like a scattering of bright diamonds in the velvety night sky, and the wind across the desert sands soothed him with its song, he couldn't recapture the lightness he'd felt as he'd watched the bird soar, and his mood turned deep and heavy—his soul now a weighted stone within him.
The plane dropped beneath the clouds and there, spreading to the horizon, were the desert sands, just as Kal had described them—a golden sea, with wave upon wave of wind-sculpted dunes. Kal had spoken of their beauty, but the longing in his voice when he'd mentioned the desert had told Nell more than words ever could have. The man she'd loved had loved this arid country with a bone-deep passion bred into him over the thousands of years his ancestors had roamed those sands.
Now, seeing them for the first time, Nell clasped her hands tightly together, the photo of Patrick—Patrick with hair—before the cancer—squashed between them. It was like a talisman, this photo, and she'd held it tightly throughout the twelve-hour flight, so now the outer plastic cover was sticky with her worrying and a crease was developing across her son's finely aquiline nose.
Patrick was well—she'd phoned home twice from the plane, the first time because she'd been intrigued to find all she had to do was swipe her credit card in the receiver then dial, and the second time to hear Patrick's voice one more time before they landed.
This remission would last. She had to be as positive as he was. Yet here she was about to land in a foreign country, just in case being positive wasn't good enough.
Just in case... "Safely down," the comfortably plump woman beside her said, and Nell registered the jolt she'd felt and opened her eyes. The woman and her husband had been kind and undemanding travelling companions, so Nell smiled at them and wished them all the best for the rest of their journey.
They knew part of her story—the part where she was travelling to this desert country to demonstrate the use of spray-on skin for burns victims. It was something that had been developed in the burns unit where she worked and fate had played into her hands when the hospital here had requested information on the innovative technique for their new burns unit and had asked if perhaps someone would come and demonstrate it.
A month, that's all Nell had—to both explain the treatment to the staff at the hospital and to find Patrick's father. To somehow tell him, at the risk of her own hard-won emotional security, that he had a son—a son who might, one day soon, need his help and the help of his people...
She closed her eyes again—the magnitude of that particular exercise all but overwhelming her. It would be all right, she promised herself as the plane taxied towards the low, well-lit terminal. It had to be all right!
But once out of the safety of the plane, nerves began gnawing at Nell's stomach. Through passport control—purpose of visit to this desert kingdom, business—and customs—no, nothing to declare—the gnawing grew stronger and stronger until she wondered if people could develop stomach ulcers in such a short time.
A door at the far end of the customs hall spilled her out into a wide foyer, crowded with people clamouring for a glimpse of their returning loved ones. And at the back of the crowd, a small sign held aloft. DR WARREN was all it said, but the woman in the headscarf who held it was smiling so warmly Nell felt the panic in her stomach ease.
"I'm Nell Warren," she said, pushing through the crowd and holding out her hand to the smiling woman.
"Yasmeen," the woman offered, shaking Nell's hand and drawing her further from the jostling crowd. Then a screeching, rending, tearing noise, so loud and fearsome it conjured up images of other worlds, rent the air, and people began to scream and scream so when the sirens started, they were like a continuation of the high-pitched sounds of terror.
"Something has gone wrong." Yasmeen stated the obvious, but she was already moving with a purpose. "All hospital staff take part in simulated airport emergencies," she said over her shoulder. "I must go. You can stay here and wait."
"If it's an emergency, the more hands you have the better," Nell told her, dropping her small suitcase beside a pillar and hurrying after the woman through a crowd that was now in full panic mode despite what were probably reassurances echoing from the public-address system.
Ducking and weaving, they finally reached a deserted corridor on the ground floor, and Yasmeen pushed through a door into a large room, glass windows on the far side of which reflected the angry red glow of a fierce fire. Going towards the windows, Nell saw the fire engines racing across the tarmac, some units already in place, sending streams of snow-like foam onto the angry conflagration.
Yasmeen was murmuring to herself—a prayer, Nell guessed, for her own heart was praying for whoever was trapped in the burning plane. The door behind them opened and more people swept in, some wheeling trolleys, others carrying first-aid equipment. Two ambulances pulled up outside, the public-address system issued what had to be instructions, and Nell felt the tension build as emergency crews awaited the order to move.
"We will wait here and treat the injured as they are brought in," Yasmeen said to Nell. "As the first doctors on the scene, we must do what we can. The hospital will be on full alert by now and more ambulances will be here shortly. The worst cases we'll send straight to the hospital where emergency teams will have more facilities to treat them."
Nell looked at the burning aircraft and wondered if they would have any patients to treat. Surely no one could escape so fierce a fire.
"Do you know what happened?"
Yasmeen shook her head. "From what people are saying around me, it seems the plane was coming in to land—praise be it wasn't your plane—when it skidded on the runway. Maybe the wheels didn't lock, or some oil made it skid. It slewed off sideways, hit a stationary plane, and then burst into flames."
Nell shook her head, imagining the horror of those on board. How many had there been? She couldn't tell how big the burning plane was, but her flight had carried over four hundred people.
"Look!" Yasmeen grabbed her arm, and there, black against the leaping red and orange flames, were small figures, fleeing across the tarmac.
"So some have survived," Nell murmured, watching as airport vehicles stopped by the small figures, collecting them, then speeding towards the room where she and Yasmeen waited with the other emergency staff.
It was her last rational thought for some hours. The first victims had been lucky—not badly burned—so the job was to clean the wounds and dress them, to wrap blankets around shaking shoulders and treat them for shock. But as the room filled with the less badly injured, the scene of operations moved outside onto the tarmac, where arc lights lit a scene from hell.
"Cover wounds with clean dry cloth, intubate if their airways seem undamaged—if there are no burns on their face or throat—but otherwise provide oxygen through a mask. Remember a lot will have lung damage from inhaling the heat and smoke. Get fluids flowing in," Nell said to Yasmeen, who had hesitated beside her as the more seriously injured began to arrive. "Raise the injured parts and treat for shock, don't attempt to treat the burns, don't peel off clothes, don't puncture blisters, don't raise their heads as it could compromise their airways," Nell added, aware she probably had more experience in burns first aid than the other doctor. "Tell the other people here to do the same. Would you like me to do the triage? Sending the worst cases to hospital first?"
Yasmeen nodded and though Nell could feel the other woman shaking beside her, Yasmeen pulled herself together and gave orders in a crisp clear voice.
Mobile medical supply vans had appeared from nowhere, the sides of the vans opening up to reveal an abundance of equipment. As she checked patients and tagged them in order of the severity of their injuries, Nell marvelled at the organisational set-up of the airport that it had these vans on standby.
She worked as if controlled from somewhere outside herself, checking, treating, passing patients on, until at last more and more of the bodies being pulled from the plane were already dead and the grim task of handling them could be turned over to someone else.
"Come on," she said to Yasmeen. "We'll be needed at the hospital."
The other woman's face was black with soot and grime from the clothes of the patients they'd treated, and Nell guessed her own was just as bad, but Yasmeen's smile lit up her darkened face and she shook her head at Nell's suggestion.
"You're a guest here and you've already done enough to help," she protested. "I will take you to the quarters we've arranged for you where you can clean up and rest."
Then it was Nell's turn to shake her head. "No way! This is what I do, Yasmeen! I'm a specialist burns doctor. How many of them does your hospital have? I also know the uses of the spray-on skin—that's why I'm here, remember. Take me to the hospital. I can help in either your emergency room or wherever else I'm needed."
She smiled at her new friend. "I'll clean up first," she promised.
Yasmeen smiled again, then led the way back through the airport and out the other side to where cars jammed the roads, news of the accident having sent panicking relations racing to the airport.
"It's a gridlock. We'll never get away. Perhaps we should go back and hitch a ride with an ambulance," Nell suggested, but a clattering noise drowned out the words and she looked up to see a helicopter descending towards the far side of the terminal building.
"Come on—that's the best ride for us. The chief's own personal helicopter. He's been talking about getting one for the hospital, but until it happens, he's willing to use his own for emergencies."
Yasmeen grabbed Nell's arm and hurried her back the way they'd come.
"I was wondering why he hadn't turned up earlier, then remembered he'd taken some rare time off and had probably gone out to the desert."
Yasmeen was talking of this 'chief' with a mixture of respect and affection as she led the way through the milling crowds, and from the words she used—"chief' in particular—and her accented English, Nell guessed she'd trained, for a time at least, in the United States.
"This chief? Is he a department head? Or the hospital CEO?" Nell asked, and Yasmeen turned to flash another smile her way.
"Chief surgeon, head of the hospital, and also a member of our ruling family. Khalil al Kalada is a great man who was not only born to greatness but has lived up to the finest of his family's traditions."
Khalil al Kalada.
The words seemed to come from a great distance, echoing through space, closer and closer until they hammered like drumbeats in Nell's head.
Cold fear clutched at her heart while panic spread through her body. Not yet, her mind yelled. I'm not ready yet! But though her feet faltered Yasmeen urged her on, racing her headlong towards a meeting with the man she'd come so far to find.